Traveling is more at our reach than ever, and while we can all agree on the positive aspects of that, it also makes it necessary to place real thought onto our privileges and duties as travelers. Simply put, the right to travel the world freely comes with a wide set of ethical responsibilities, especially when our chosen destinations happen to be countries with vastly different political, social and economic situations than the ones we’re used to experience at home. 

From the lack of visas and freedom of transit granted by certain passports compared to others, to having enough residual income and lack of economic burdens to be able to spend money on cheap tickets and hostels, being able to hop around the world doesn’t just come down to being frugal.

As we decide to feed our wanderlust, it’s important to recognize these aspects and ask ourselves about the ethical aspects of our travel behavior, making sure to move through the world in a respectful and conscious manner, particularly when visiting lower-income and conflicted countries, as to avoid insensitive, stereotype-perpetuating practices. While there’s no such thing as a flawless approach to the subject of ethical travel, here’s a quick check-list that can help you get the ball rolling. 

You’re a traveler, not a savior

When considering the ethics of visiting a place, it’s important to ask yourself precisely what is it that you’re looking to get out of it.

There’s a common narrative amongst travelers assuming that visiting a conflicted or lower-income country is a contribution to the place, and while this isn’t entirely wrong, it’s also not as simple. Just because tourism creates jobs and opportunities, doesn’t mean that the most impoverished locals are enjoying the benefits of this business, and as noble as your intentions of volunteering in a local orphanage may be, in many cases it can end up causing much more harm than good

school children and dog in front of white building

Better to do research, than to assume

Just as you carefully look at the weather and major sight-seeing spots, make sure to acquaint yourself with local cultural norms, history and the current state of affairs inside the country you’re planning to visit. I don’t mean simply looking at appropriate dress codes, but also asking some deeper questions. 

How is the country’s government dealing with the different aspects of its society? What is this place’s situation in terms of human rights? How about those particularly referring to women and LGBTQ folks? What is the current economic, social and political situation? How will your environmental impact affect this place?

The idea isn’t for you to become an expert in international politics overnight, but simply to have some actual insight as to the place you’re going. This way, you run much less of a risk of impersonating the clueless tourist you certainly don’t want to be. Before assuming anything, do your research. More often than not you’ll be surprised with your findings. 

Don’t get all excited about “cheap” prices

Cheap countries don’t exist, economic inequalities do. If your dollars or euros can be easily stretched to afford your stay in a place, it only means that the local currency is undervalued in terms of yours. 

Take this particularly into account when it comes to local tipping customs, attempting to haggle prices or getting mad about being “ripped-off.” As a foreigner, you’re likely going to have to pay more than a local, but when the exchange rate is in your favor those extra few dollars you weren’t expecting to shed on souvenirs will most probably cause a higher impact to the vendor’s pockets than yours. 

Stay local

If you really want to make sure your impact on this place is positive, pay very close attention to where your money is going. Choose to invest in accommodations run by locals instead of Airbnb’s, hotel chains and expat owned hostels; go to the local markets and family-owned eateries instead of international chains and prefer independent, locally owned and operated tour companies whose ethical travel beliefs are compatible with yours.  

products hanging in food marketHumans are not subjects or curiosities

If the reason you’ve chosen this destination and your activities in it involves witnessing the plights of others less fortunate than you, just don’t. Getting yourself involved in poverty tourism is a major no-no, and even choosing to visit a place experiencing social unrest due to oppressive regimes places you in an ethically complicated terrain. 

What you consider a shack is actually someone’s home, and using people as photo props or visiting places just to see the level of destitution the “other” lives in is not only disrespectful, but actually serves as a way to further support ha rmful stereotypes that result in large scale oppression. 

Which brings me to…

You’re a guest in someone’s home — behave as such

As much as you want to experience “the real local experience,” there’s simply no way to do so as a traveler. The place you’re visiting has its own identity, one that existed long before you or any other tourist ever showed up there, so don’t expect it to change in order to accommodate you. 

Not everyone will speak English and they’re not obliged to either; the treats and comforts you’re so used to getting at home probably have no reason to be found here, and just because something is different from what you’re used to doesn’t mean it’s “less than,” so be mindful of the comments that you make. Learn at least a few basic words and phrases in the local language and make sure to find ways to create actual connections to those who call this place home. 

Talk to them, show your interest in their country and their lives, ask questions, ignite conversations and above all, make sure to listen and embrace it as it is, as this will certainly help you paint a much realistic picture of what life here is actually like.

dancers in local dress

Make your experience worth something

Ethical travel can cultivate awareness of how lucky we are to be able to jump between countries, places and cultures, and therefore understand that this has to count for something. When coming back home, use this experience in a fruitful way, whether to spread the word about what you saw, learned and experienced while being there or in any other meaningful way. However, be mindful of the ways that you do so, making sure to avoid white savior type of narratives. 

There are many shades to traveling, and though it can be a beautiful experience it can also be complicated and mind boggling. While some people may choose to go the easy way by remaining clueless to their impact in a place, focusing on nothing else than the food and sights, or simply avoiding spots too far out of their comfort zone, instances of cultural exchange provided by these sort of experiences can be a powerful way to create a greater understanding of this big, convoluted world we live in. 

Now that traveling is so at our reach, let’s not banalize it and instead take it as the gift that it is, finding ways to make it truly worth the while, not just for us, but for those who we encounter along the way.

What has your journey with ethical travel looked like? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!